Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Programs to Help “Overwhelmed” Children Tried in Michigan Schools

PAW PAW, Michigan – On a blustery December morning in rural southwest Michigan, an American flag flew at half mast in front of Paw Paw Elementary School. A social worker with a miniature therapy dog ​​named Trixie offered comfort at the front doors.

Children wearing face masks scampered off buses in the cool of the morning, some stooping to pet the shaggy puppy before wandering inside.

Like children in so many cities and towns around the world, the youth of Van Buren Middle School District in Michigan have been through a lot in recent years. A relentless pandemic that continues to disrupt classrooms, make friends and loved ones sick, and left some families in the district jobless and homeless. Three attempted student suicides in the county since resuming full-time in-person school this fall, two student suicides last year. And now a fatal shooting two days earlier at a school hours away.

But with an injection of federal COVID relief money and state funding this year, along with the belief among local school officials that children cannot be successful academically if they are struggling emotionally, Van Buren’s more than 15,000 students all receive additional help.

Heartwarming dog Trixie waits to greet the students of the first elementary wing of Paw Paw Elementary School in Paw Paw, Michigan. Principal Melissa Remillard (in red in the background) and other staff also greet the students.
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In a school year that was supposed to be a return to normal but turned out to be anything but, the district launched an educational program based on a key element of modern psychology – cognitive behavioral therapy. The principles of this method are incorporated into the curriculum and are part of the district’s total commitment to social and emotional learning.

Students in each grade learn how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related and how learning to control and reframe thoughts can lead to more positive results. The program includes more intensive classes for children struggling with anxiety, depression or trauma, as well as sessions on suicide prevention. All district staff familiarize themselves with the concepts.

As schools in the United States and elsewhere increasingly teach social and emotional learning skills, many are taking a more piecemeal approach, creating a designated class to talk about feelings or focusing that attention only on the most vulnerable children. difficulty. Many lack the funding and resources to take the kind of holistic approach that Paw Paw and its neighboring schools are attempting, weaving evidence-based psychology methods into the curriculum and involving all students and staff.

Effective social and emotional learning does not happen “only at certain times of the day or with certain people” it should be reflected in all school operations and practices, said Olga Acosta Price, director of the National Center for Health and Education. Schools health care. With the disruption from the pandemic so widespread, this type of approach is needed “more than ever,” she said.

As the second-graders at Paw Paw Early Elementary sat cross-legged on the floor on a recent day in December, they received an introduction from their teacher and a video presentation, learning to identify, manage and reframe the ‘grown-ups’. feelings like anxiety, anger and sadness.

Young people were given an example: feeling angry and yelling at your mother because she forgot to buy your favorite breakfast cereal. It makes you even more upset and your mom feels sad. Instead, remember that you love waffles too, and you might kindly ask her to make some, which will make you both feel happier at the start of your day.

At the nearby elementary school for upper grades, in a group session for the most at-risk children, four fifth-graders practiced a mindfulness exercise, inhaling and exhaling slowly while using an index finger to trace up and down the fingers of the other hand. Behavioral specialist Eric Clark, wearing a black face mask imprinted with the message “Be Kind”, led the session, calmly accepting a provocative girl’s refusal to participate.

Clark said since resuming school he has seen children with a lot of anxiety, thoughts of harming themselves and feeling “completely overwhelmed, they just don’t want to do it anymore.”

“I think we are starting to see some of the effects of the last few years,” he said. “The added stress of not knowing what’s next and not knowing if we’re going to have school because we have too many cases or not knowing if another variant has arrived or not knowing if someone one still has a job. “

Clark said the district’s psychology-focused program, dubbed “TRAILS” by its creators at the University of Michigan, helps everyone cope with challenges.

“We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it,” Clark said.

Abby Olmstead, a dark-haired, dark-eyed 10-year-old girl with a freckle splash on her nose, says the finger breathing exercise calms her down and working with Clark “has helped me a lot.” .

“He always makes me laugh when I have anxiety, and that’s not a bad thing,” she said.

Over 1,000 district staff, including bus drivers, have been trained in the program.

“From the superintendent to every staff member, we’ve said you have to know what makes kids tick,” said Corey Harbaugh, program director of Paw Paw Schools. “You have to be better at it so that every adult a student comes in contact with – from the time they get on a bus in the morning, until the time they get off in the afternoon – every adult has been trained and given some of the tools to work with children around social and emotional skills.

Second-grade teacher Melissa Shugg gives a lesson at Paw Paw Elementary School on thoughts, feelings and actions.

Second-grade teacher Melissa Shugg gives a lesson at Paw Paw Elementary School on thoughts, feelings and actions.
PA

Some parents questioned the approach, arguing that their children are “well regulated” and do not need them. And some mistakenly believe that social and emotional learning is somehow tied to a method of understanding American racism called Critical Race Theory.

Harbaugh is not backing down.

“We’re very blunt in saying we know it’s good for kids. The research is there, ”he said.

Studies have shown that social and emotional learning programs can improve academic performance, classroom behavior, and stress management. Research also suggests that TRAILS lessons for at-risk children can reduce depression and improve coping skills.

Nearly 700 American schools have paid contracts to receive support and implement the program. Its website provides free online documents that are downloaded more than 2,000 times a day, and users come from all over the world, said Elizabeth Koschmann, a University of Michigan researcher who developed the program. These downloads exploded during the pandemic.

She said schools contacted her almost daily, asking her “how they could keep up with the students who were falling apart, the staff who were losing morale and were in the throes of burnout, and just a pervasive sense of burnout. , despair and despair “.

There is ample evidence to support the need to pay more attention to the mental well-being of students.

US emergency rooms have seen an increase in the number of children suffering from mental health crises, including suicidal behavior, depression and eating disorders. Pediatric mental health therapists are scarce in many areas, and children often wait months for outpatient treatment.

In a Dec. 7 public health advisory, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cited research showing symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled among young people around the world during the pandemic. The expansion of school-based programs is one of its recommendations.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is among groups that recently made similar recommendations declaring failing children’s mental health a national emergency.

With teachers and students grappling with the effects of the pandemic, “more needs to be done,” said Dr. Sara Bode, president-elect of the academy’s school health board and pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. . Comprehensive programs are “critical because we cannot get out of this crisis individually.”

At Paw Paw Middle School, an emergency drill interrupted grade 8 students writing down the values ​​and behavior they would like to see in a social contract for the class. The exercise gave students and administrators time to reflect on the recent school shooting in Oxford, Mich., Allegedly committed by a boy a few years older than these children.

Paw Paw students were told to look for the nearest classroom rather than flee outside, in case a gunman was positioned there.

Will Bowater, 13, said callbacks are stressful, but “it helps to know that there are people who are, for example, together enough to think about how to handle things like this” .

He said the school’s focus on feelings and positivity is a good thing, even though “sometimes it sounds a little, like, cheesy.”

Harbaugh said it was a work in progress.

“If you look at our school, our social, emotional and Paw Paw learning, we don’t serve gourmet meals here,” he said. “We’re in the kitchen, there’s flour everywhere, the eggs are broken and you know, we’ve got things moving and the ovens are heating up behind us. We are trying to understand. And we will continue. “


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